At a glance
Why do compliments often make us cringe with self-consciousness?
While some people are adept at graciously accepting positive feedback and bask in the warm glow of recognition, some are left feeling a little uncomfortable.
Nearly 70 per cent of people experience some degree of anxiety about giving and receiving praise, according to research by Christopher Littlefield, the founder of workplace recognition consultancy Beyond Thank You.
Yet, the same research has found that 88 per cent of respondents associate praise with feeling valued.
“When we hear that we’re doing a good job at work, it sends a signal to us that we matter, and that is crucial to relationships,” says Littlefield.
“Most of the conflicts I see in organisations are the result of people not feeling valued.
“Their boss may actually appreciate them, but if the employee doesn’t know that, it often turns into resentment, followed by distrust and disengagement.”
What makes praise so tricky?
Littlefield believes that part of the awkwardness stems from being unsure how to respond – training courses typically do not focus on praise. In contrast, delivering criticism is considered an art to be mastered.
Praise is also intimate, and that can spark feelings of embarrassment.
“Someone is sharing how they feel about us, or how they experienced something we did, and often the person is seeing something that we didn’t see, or didn’t want them to see,” he explains.
“They’re also sharing an opinion of something that we didn’t expect, and oftentimes it conflicts with our own paradigm of ourselves.”
Some people simply believe that they ought not to accept praise; that there is something inherently wrong with doing so, says Jacqueline Whitmore, international etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach.
“From an early age, most of us have been taught to remain humble and not be arrogant, egotistical or too proud,” she says.
“Some people feel unworthy or undeserving, while others try to deflect attention from themselves. Some people undervalue the importance of their contributions. Some feel more comfortable putting the spotlight on others instead of themselves.”
Silence the inner critic
Littlefield calls out the “tall poppy syndrome”, which tends to discourage people from accepting compliments, because standing out might be perceived as negative. “We learn to avoid recognition, because we fear being excluded from the group.
“We forget that when people are recognising us, they actually want us to feel good,” he says.
Those who consistently struggle with accepting praise may be paying too much attention to what self-development consultant, coach and author Angela Di Paola calls “that darn inner critic.”
“Many of us have an inner critic who tells us that we’re not good enough and will never accomplish our goals. It comes from many different sources: it could be past experiences of having failed or being put down.
The inner critic “feeds on our emotions and insecurities, and makes it very difficult to accept compliments because we think the person must be being insincere.”
However, deflecting or rejecting a compliment comes with the risk of undermining the person who is giving it – they may even walk away feeling insulted.
There is also the possibility of appearing falsely modest or guilty of an irritating “humble brag” (“I hate my Ferrari! Police are always pulling me over just because it’s a Ferrari, and they assume I’m speeding when I’m not!”).
Praise gone wrong
When Littlefield set out to discover the best types of compliments, he realised that people were more interested in telling him about the worst compliments they had encountered. He interviewed 400 people on the Boston subway and subsequently identified what he describes as “ineffective recognition practices”.
The most common is buttering someone up with a compliment and then asking them for a favour, or the sandwich feedback model, whereby two hollow compliments are given in between a “slice” of criticism.
Another is “pity praise”; for example, a colleague bombs a presentation but, instead of acknowledging this, we pretend it went well. Each approach is inauthentic.
“When we do these things, we actually break down the relationships that we were looking to build,” he says.
“Instead of giving a compliment on the fly, pause and think for a second. What behaviour did you see that had an impact on you? Be specific.”
Also consider how the person would wish to receive the praise. They may not enjoy being the centre of attention, in which case it would be preferable to send them an email or a voice message, rather than addressing them in a group setting.
Less is more
If you’re feeling unsure about how to respond to praise, Littlefield suggests keeping it simple. This is far preferable to awkwardly trying to deflect or reject the praise, or countering with a compliment of your own.
“A gracious reply to a compliment is simply saying, ‘Thank you’. If it really meant something, you could add, ‘That’s really great to hear’,” suggests Littlefield.
Di Paola says it can also help to consider the other person’s perspective. “Take a step back and a deep breath and recognise that people actually don’t have to compliment you, so when they do, it is generally coming from a good place.
Recognise that they themselves are being vulnerable by giving you that compliment.”